Government Shutdown and Libraries

By michaelbeiser

The recent government shutdown in Washington DC has been an unavoidable news subject of the last few weeks, from dismay with House Republicans holding the government hostage, to the concerns about glitches users experienced trying to access new health care websites. But there have been some surprising reverberations in the seemingly calm world of librarians and researchers as well; the Library of Congress was closed and its website offline for a few days, as were websites for the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other websites like PubMed were operational but went without updates. The National Archives and Records Administration also had to put 1,932 of its employees on unpaid furlough, meaning partial closures of the 13 Presidential libraries across the country which are NARA-administered. These were all major losses for researchers across the country whose work relies on both physical records and electronic databases.
And there were other ways in which the shutdown was felt. Inside Higher Ed’s website noted that the shutdown was causing disruption in disparate conferences, such as a digital humanities conference sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the annual conference for the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science held in Austin, Texas. New research grants at the NIH, NSF, and other federal agencies were stopped as well, and intramural research at the NIH was also largely on hold while new patients were not being admitted into clinical trials at the agency’s medical center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The shutdown began October 1, when lawmakers failed to pass a budget agreement after heated debate over implementation of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This in turn led to the furlough of almost a million federal workers, and the closure of federal institutions like museums and national parks. As to be expected, blame for the shutdown-related problems and disruptions was shifted back and forth between parties. House Republicans introduced bills to provide stopgap funding for the NIH through mid-December, as well as bills to cover funding for the District of Columbia’s operating budget, national parks and museums, and veteran’s benefits. But these bills are unlikely to pass the Senate, and the White House as vowed to veto them, decrying the “piecemeal fashion” of these bills, and calling on the House to “reopen all of the Government.” The American Council on Education, took a cautious stance on the Republican proposal, with Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Terry Hartle saying “We would obviously like to see the entire government reopen and some departments in particular, NIH and NSF, would top our list. But this is an intense, totally political controversy. It’s unlikely that we’re going to insert ourselves in it.”
The stance of neutrality for those representing education resources is understandable and predictable in this situation. In the world of research, academics, and libraries, there is always a need to at least maintain the appearance of non-partisanship, and perhaps a sense that it is best not to rock the boat while waiting for everything to return to a state of normalcy. But should there be more of a sense of outrage? Would it be better to approve of Republican measures to provide stopgap funding for essential services to keep them running, or is it more important to fight the political fight with politics? There are certainly those in the field who believe in the ultimate importance of defending health care. And yet, perhaps there should be some resentment on the part of those in these services (again, always with the ideal of neutrality in mind) whose work is caught up in the larger political machinations of Washington.
There have also been some questions regarding the decision to shutdown websites; while closing physical institutions is perhaps understandable, the maintenance of a website shouldn’t be so difficult or costly. But websites require workers as well, and left unattended could be vulnerable.
It is tempting to read the situation as a failure of bureaucracy, where foolish top-down policies are put into play by the controlling men at the highest point in the federal food-chain, and the effects ripple below to the people below, be they library workers, veterans, park workers or visitors. But perhaps it is a more systemic level problem: our federal institution systems are perhaps rigid and lumbering, and all the actors in this drama are probably doing the most towards what they genuinely believe is right.
Several decades ago Michael Lipsky wrote about the problems facing workers he called “street-level bureaucrats”, meaning the lowest level of government workers who actually work face to face with the public. While he outlined how problematic their work could be (mostly referring to policemen, school teachers, and judges), he also spoke to a possibility for these low-level workers to actually implement policy beyond that which was dictated from above. Is there room in this government shutdown situation for lower level players to affect action? It might be hard to see where librarians fit into this picture of “street-level bureaucrats”, but one bright spot of the shutdown was Washington D.C. mayor Vincent Gray deeming librarians and other local government workers “essential.” In the face of this situation, there has been one bright spot. Normally, such a shutdown would see “non-essential” services like parks and libraries closed in Washington D.C. (due to the special status of the city, which needs Congress’s approval for any budget). But Mayor Vincent Gray defied the federal government, and opted to keep D.C.’s public libraries open.
Maybe there is perhaps a tension here- it is true that it can be harder to see the direct relationship between the work of a librarian in a library and the work of a policeman keeping law and order. But librarians and other researchers do perform vital services for the community on both a local and national level, and it is important that as profession librarians see themselves as being as worthy as others. Professional neutrality need not mean professional self-effacement. Beyond the temporary shutdown situation, there is room for the field of librarianship to assert itself, and improve itself. In the meantime, the Library of Congress’s website at least is now up again. Now if some work could be done on some of the more archaic LCC categorizations (yes, I mean “Oriental language and literatures”) before the next shutdown. That will be for another blog.

Lipsky, Michael (1969). “Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, NYC

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